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What next for the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill?

On 13 July 2017, the UK government introduced the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill 2017-19 (the Bill) to Parliament. It survived its second reading in September, but now that we are approaching the Committee stage, things are likely to get more interesting. Daniel Greenberg, Westlaw UK General Editor of Annotated Statutes and Insight Encyclopaedia, looks at what could happen next.

Hundreds of amendments have been tabled to the Bill for consideration in Committee of the Whole House in the House of Commons, as one would expect. Even so, not all the interests that could be represented appear yet, so it is likely that following the conference season there will be significant additions to the list of amendments before the Committee stage gets underway.

One of the most interesting questions is what overall approach the government will attempt to take to amendments in the House of Commons.  On a significant constitutional measure of this kind, it would be normal for the government to take the attitude, that no amendments will be conceded or accepted in the House of Commons, leaving them to be raised again in the House of Lords.

It is of course not clear at this stage whether that will prove to be the most sensible tactic; but even if it is thought to be appropriate, it remains to be seen whether the state of the Commons allows the government to defeat any hostile amendments that are pushed to a vote there.

For a Bill with a relatively tight policy focus, the complexity of the draft presents an unusually wide flank of non-essential material, and therefore exposes itself to significant amendment: in particular, a number of amendments could be proposed that would not derail the fundamental purpose and effect of the Bill, but at the same time would make a significant difference to concerns raised in various quarters.

With that in mind, the government may feel that the standard line of “any amendment to the Bill risks torpedoing the timetable and undermining implementation” would be difficult to maintain; in which case it may decide that it is preferable to draw the fire of those who object to particular aspects of the Bill by conceding or accepting Commons amendments, rather than requiring all the issues to be fought again in the Lords.

The processing and handling of statutory instruments under the Bill is one example of a series of issues that appear to command a degree of cross-party backbench interest and on which some cross-party collaboration is to be expected; and that is probably one area where the government is considering whether concessions in the Commons would make for the most efficient handling overall.

Following a series of days in Committee of the Whole House of Commons a Report Stage will follow, but only if amendments are made in Committee; if there is a Report Stage, it is likely to be brief, one or two days. As usual in the House of Commons, Third Reading will not be an amendable stage and is normally a fairly perfunctory event even on a Bill of this importance.

The behaviour of different interest groups in the Lords will doubtless be influenced significantly by what happens in Committee in the Commons. In particular, the Lords will doubtless be watching the effect of the Programme Motion in the Commons to see whether particular topics that were selected for debate by the Speaker were not in the end debated as a result of lack of time; and that will increase the likelihood of those topics being discussed at length in the House of Lords.

The present disposition of party affiliations in the Lords makes it likely that there will be government defeats in that House: the extent and nature of the issues will in part be determined by whether the government has made any active concessions in the Commons, and indeed whether the government brings forwards its own amendments in the Lords to make concessions to views expressed in Committee in the Commons. It is therefore too early to speculate usefully on how the Bill will play in the Lords, but it should be possible to say more about that as proceedings in the Commons continue.

Daniel Greenberg, General Editor, Annotated Statutes and Insight Encyclopaedia, Westlaw UK.

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